After a first half of 2011 in which he'd hit 15 doubles and 16 HR's while putting up a .242/.332/.460 slash, Danny Espinosa was receiving ROY consideration, First-Half MVP votes and All-Star endorsements. The 24-year-old Nats' second baseman had Ryan Zimmerman's vote. In an interview on MLB Network Radio, the Nats' Face of the Franchise said Espinosa, "... plays the game the right way, he's been brought up the right way. He knows what it is and how fortunate he is to be in the position that he's at. He works his butt off every day to get better and like you said, he's on pace to hit 30 homers, he's got either 14 or 15 right now with 50 RBI's, and if you ask me he should be in the All-Star Game. If you look at the position of second base and you've got a guy that's on pace to hit 30 and drive in a hundred, any time you talk about 30/100 anywhere in the big leagues, especially second base, it's something special."
"But he's a young kid, a rookie," the 27-year-old, seven-year veteran added, "and he needs to do it more than once, but once people get to see this guy play for a few years they're going to realize he's a special player."
Espinosa wouldn't get close to 30 HR's or 100 RBI's, however. After a month of June in which the '08 3rd Round pick out of Long Beach State put it all together with a .275/.345/.472 slash, six doubles, five home runs and five stolen bases in 27 games and 119 plate appearances, came a month of July in which his line dipped to .200/.298/.310, which was closer to the first two months of the season (.227/.317/.375 - Mar/Apr, .207/.305/.543 - May) but without the power that had surprised so many in the first half of the season.
After hitting 13 HR's in 225 plate appearances in May/June, Espinosa hit just six in the final 287 plate appearances of the season. When things didn't pick up in the first few weeks of August and Espinosa continued to struggle, going 15 for 68 (.221/.274/.294) with five doubles, five walks, and 17 K's in 17 games, Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson moved Espinosa down in the order to try to shake things up. "I said I'm going to move you down," the manager recounted, "and he said, 'Good. Five or six?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Great,' and he shook my hand. He likes being in a situation where he's driving in more runs than he does table setting."
Espinosa, Davey Johnson acknowledged, was often "overly aggressive", chasing balls out of the zone and striking out too often, but the manager told reporters, "that's wanting to make something happen, trying to manufacture something." In an appearance on the MLB Network around that time, Espinosa was asked by Larry Bowa if anyone with the Nats had "gotten on" his back over the fact that he'd already struck out 119 times in 120 games. Had anyone talked to him about shortening up his swing and going the other way when he got to two strikes? (Espinosa had a .136/.236/.199 line on the season with 166 K's in 302 at bats with two-strike counts.)
"Yeah, I mean they try to teach me to choke up a little bit," Espinosa told the MLB Network host, "Which I usually do, I do choke up. Sometimes my timing just gets off. I chase pitches every once in a while, but sometimes my timing gets off and I over-think situations rather than just being ready to see the ball and put it into play." After the move down in the lineup, Espinosa finished the season by going 32 for 119 with nine doubles and four HR's in 140 plate appearances from mid-July through the end of the season.
After a particularly rough four-game stretch in September which saw the rookie second baseman going hitless in four games and striking out 11 times in 15 at bats, the Nationals' manager found Espinosa in the video room as usual, after the rest of the team had left the clubhouse. "I had two or three conversations with him last night," Johnson said, "He was about the last one to leave. I left after him, but he was hanging around a long time," and, as the manager put it, doing, "... what he usually does. Go in the video room. And I said forget all this stuff in here, don't worry about it. You just need to relax a little bit. And we had a nice little conversation, he got a couple of nice hits today and everything's rosy."
"He expects so much out of himself and I want to him to back off and have fun," Johnson told reporters, "He's done a great job breaking in, he's drawn a lot of attention to himself. Everybody talks about him. Sometimes you can't see the forest through the trees... and he's driven." Espinosa finished out the season by going 19 for 60 (.317/.406/.517) with six doubles, two home runs, seven walks and 18 K's in 17 games. The Nats' rookie second baseman finished his first full season in the majors with a .236/.323/.414 slash, 29 doubles, 21 HR's, 66 RBI's, 55 walks, 166 K's (25.2 K%) and 17 stolen bases in 158 game and 658 plate appearances.
Espinosa's 21 HR's were tied for 4th (w/ Dustin Pedroia) amongst major league second baseman. He hit 14 more HR's than any other rookie second baseman in the majors and tied for 3rd overall in the majors (w/ the Braves' Freddie Freeman) behind only Blue Jays' catcher J.P. Arencibia (23 HR's) and Angels' outfielder Mark Trumbo (29). Espinosa's +3.5 WAR led all rookies in the majors, and was the eighth highest WAR amongst second baseman league-wide. Defensively, Espinosa had the second-highest error total in MLB with 14 to Dan Uggla and Rickie Weeks' 15 each. Espinosa's .982 fld% was 14th overall amongst qualified second baseman, his +0.9 UZR/150 was 13th overall.
No one was discussing Espinosa in the ROY race at the end of the season, but he'd helped Michael Morse carry the team for a time offensively and he solidified his role in the Nationals' infield while putting together a rookie campaign that surprised many in baseball. Now, as Ryan Zimmerman said, he has to come back and do it again, and again...with less K's hopefully.